Gus Newport Showed Bernie Sanders How to Be a Socialist Mayor in the Age of Reagan

Gus Newport Showed Bernie Sanders How to Be a Socialist Mayor in the Age of Reagan

Gus Newport Showed Bernie Sanders How to Be a Socialist Mayor in the Age of Reagan

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Former Berkeley mayor Eugene “Gus” Newport was an indefatigable activist who proudly identified as “an avowed socialist” in the age of Ronald Reagan—a fact that The New York Times noted in its rare and not always generous coverage of his two terms as the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist, peace-and-justice championing mayor of the Left Coast city. Newport, who died on June 17 at age 88, spent decades on the front lines of radical struggles for economic, social, and racial equity, working with Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Harvey Milk, and his friend and ideological ally Bernie Sanders.

Newport rose to international political prominence in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a dissenting voice from the lurch toward the right led by Reagan. A year before his fellow Californian’s election to the presidency in 1980, the veteran civil rights activist and community organizer made an unexpected entry into mayoral politics as the candidate of the progressive Berkeley Citizens’ Action movement. With endorsements from friends and allies such as US Representative Ron Dellums (D-Calif.), actor Danny Glover, and singer Harry Belafonte, Newport defeated incumbent Mayor Warren Widener in a historic win for the left.

American voters had elected dozens of socialist mayors in the 20th century, including three Socialist Party stalwarts—Milwaukeeans Emil Seidel, Dan Hoan, and Frank Zeidler—who led one of the nation’s largest cities for the better part of five decades. But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, mayors who used the “s” world to identify their politics were few and far between. Still, Newport wore his political values proudly, as a mayor, a leader of NGOs, a member of the advisory board for New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and an honorary cochair of Democratic Socialists of America.

During his eight years as Berkeley’s mayor, Newport championed rent control, policing reforms, environmental justice, and community development programs that served working-class neighborhoods. The city developed a pioneering domestic partner benefits program for same-sex couples and, with Milk, a San Francisco supervisor who was one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country, Newport enthusiastically participated in pride marches. An internationalist, Newport emerged as an outspoken advocate for movements to end apartheid in South Africa and to oppose the dirty wars and assaults on human rights that President Reagan’s administration was supporting in Central America.

When critics attacked him for developing “a municipal foreign policy,” Newport did not blink. “You cannot separate our domestic problems from our foreign policies,” he explained. “In fact, from one set of policies, we have two victims: the people of the third-world in general—Central America and Africa—but also the working-class people of this country.”

At a time when Reagan was framing the discourse in ever more right-wing and militaristic terms, and when Democrats in Washington were adopting the “messaging” of the corporate-aligned Democratic Leadership Council, Newport stood out as a dissenter against the dominant paradigm. “I cannot even begin to do justice to the leadership Gus has offered us over the years and to the ways in which he has modeled anti-racist work, especially how he has always emphasized the context, the internationalist frameworks of this work,” said Angela Davis, when she recalled Newport’s mayoralty and the years of activism that followed it. “Whether we are talking about the anti-apartheid movement, the Central America solidarity movement, and, especially important for our contemporary organizing strategies, the struggle to develop support for Justice in Palestine.”

Newport’s approach caught the attention of Sanders, who after mounting several unsuccessful statewide races in Vermont in the 1970s was shifting his focus toward municipal politics. After Sanders was elected as mayor of Burlington in 1981, the issue on which he and Newport connected was opposition to apartheid.

In the same 1979 election that saw Newport’s breakthrough victory in the race for mayor, Berkeley became the first city in the United States to vote, by a 2-1 margin, to divest from banks doing business with South Africa. Newport and a progressive city council oversaw the divestment process.

“Berkeley was the first city to divest when I became Mayor. We had it on our ballot,” Newport recalled in a 2020 conversation with community land trust organizer John Emmeus Davis. “So Bernie called me to inquire about that, and we sort of started exploring each other’s politics and we became very good friends.”

When Newport traveled to Burlington in 1985, Sanders introduced him by saying, “There are not many mayors in this country, or public officials, in fact, who hold similar political views to what we in Burlington city government hold about the need for far-ranging and fundamental changes in this country. And I’m very delighted to welcome to the city of Burlington one man and one mayor who does hold those views, and that is Mayor Newport from Berkeley, California.”

The two mayors sought to highlight what Sanders described as “the direct relationship of United States foreign policy to, in fact, what happens domestically—and the fact that we are spending tens of billions of dollars militarily unnecessarily, while at the same time cutting back on desperately needed programs for the working people and poor people of this country.”

Arguing that “the federal government has been ravaging, absolutely, the programs for cities and towns throughout America,” Sanders said, “Gus is sitting out there on the West Coast and we’re here on the East Coast, but the problems are the same.”

Even as many in the media dismissed the left of the mid-1980s, Newport offered hope. “We only have to go back to the labor movement of the 1930s, the youth movements of the 1940s, the civil rights movement of the 1950s, the peace movement of the 1960s and 1970s,” he reminded us. “Constantly, movements have come along that have saved this country from destroying itself.”

When Sanders launched his 2016 presidential bid, Newport was among the first to recognize that a new movement was rising. He delighted in the overwhelming support that young people of all backgrounds gave to the senator’s bids for the Democratic nomination, and in the fact that many of those young people were themselves becoming candidates for local, state, and national posts. In 2016, and again in 2020, Newport hit the campaign trail for Sanders with his friend the actor Danny Glover.

In Columbia, S.C, in 2020, he recalled that he had campaigned for Sanders before.

“Bernie, when he ran for governor [of Vermont in 1986], invited me to campaign with him,” Newport told a cheering crowd of Sanders supporters.“The press, UPI and AP, came out with a big sheet of paper and Bernie said, ‘What the hell is that?’ They said, ‘Bernie, we can put a public figure’s name in a computer. We put Gus Newport’s name in and we got 90 stories. We want to know why you, Bernie, a Jew from Brooklyn and a socialist, invites out Gus Newport, a former Black nationalist and a socialist, to campaign in a state that’s 97 percent white.’ Bernie said, ‘Because we’re going to talk about the issues, and we’ve been dealing with the issues ever since.’”

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